Undercover Economist

Revolutionary roads

In 1381, a tax collector arrived at the Essex village of Fobbing to collect the third oppressive poll tax in four years. The villagers threw him out. Soldiers arrived the next month; the villagers threw them out too. Before long, Wat Tyler of Kent was leading a mass revolt, several worthies had had their houses burned down, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s treasurer had been killed, and the Tower of London had been overwhelmed.

Revolutionary crowds sometimes find themselves quite suddenly in a position of power. The sudden departure of Tunisia’s President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali gave courage to protesters across the Middle East. It was not that there was any terribly direct connection between the situation in Tunisia and that in Bahrain or Libya: rather, Ben Ali’s defeat helped protesters elsewhere to co-ordinate with each other and have confidence that they were not alone.

Twitter may have helped this co-ordination a little – I have seen no very persuasive evidence either way – but far more important was the undeniable symbol of Ben Ali and then Hosni Mubarak stepping down. A single disgruntled peasant does not march on the Tower of London by himself. There is strength in numbers and that is why such signals to gather together matter so much. Still, mass protests are fragile and revolutionary crowds must extract concessions before their moment passes.

What kind of concessions should protesters look for? According to the economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, who have built a detailed series of game-theoretic models of political transition, the answer is: ones that cannot be easily undone. Tunisia’s Ben Ali will surely not return, but already activists are concerned that democratic reforms may not be entrenched, and have returned to the streets to protest. Mubarak may be Egypt’s past, but Egypt’s future is unclear.

A fresh constitution, civil rights, and credible elections are all ways of safeguarding the gains so far. The revolutionary protesters are right to insist on them; it would hardly be a surprise to see feet being dragged by those who profited from the status quo.

It is intriguing to view events in the Middle East through this game-theoretic lens. For example, Saudi Arabia’s “royal gift” of $35bn does not seem to have satisfied activists in the kingdom. That makes sense: gifts can be withdrawn. If a dictatorial government can vent the revolutionary head of steam for a while, then the momentum for reform may be dissipated for many years – especially if the ringleaders are rounded up while all is quiet.

But by the same token this issue of credible reform can give further impetus to a revolution. As I write, Gaddafi is still in Tripoli and seems willing to stop at nothing. Yet his courageous opponents are now committed, too: they know that nobody is going to get away with giving the Libyan dictator a bloody nose and then asking for a school-building programme.

Wat Tyler’s makeshift armies met the teenage King Richard at Smithfield in east London. Tyler set out his demands: an end to the authority of feudal lords other than the king, an end to the poll tax, work based on freely agreed contracts rather than feudal obligation, and cheap rent of land. A contemporary chronicler reported, “To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.”

Thus reassured, the rebels dispersed. (Tyler himself had died in a brawl with the Mayor of London.) Later, the king broke every promise; his army toured the rebel villages, executing the ringleaders. Without true institutional change, kings and dictators can change their minds. That is as true in 2011 as it was in 1381.

Also published at ft.com.